Mary O’Brien

Mary O'Brien by Semester in the West
Mary O’Brien, a photo by Semester in the West on Flickr.

Mary O’Brien
Utah Forest Program Director, Grand Canyon Trust
Escalante, UT
September 30

Ecologist and beaver believer Mary O’Brien greets us in Escalante with a wide, toothy grin and a long to-do list. She is the director of the Grand Canyon Trust’s Utah Forest program and it is her duty to work with diverse local organizations, agencies, and stakeholders in the county to restore ecological resiliency to the land, especially through the reintroduction of beaver. Her projects for us include touring the South Hollow ranch, documenting aspen recruitment on Monroe Mountain, and staffing Utah’s first-ever beaver festival in the Petrified Forest State Park. South Hollow ranch, which belongs to Dennis Bramble, functions as a research site for passive restoration. His property features areas with differing levels of cattle grazing, providing Mary with ample examples of native grass and water flow response to cattle. After a few days of traipsing through the ranch’s brushy grasslands and swampy arroyo, Mary sent us to the four corners of Monroe Mountain, where we collected Aspen cores to determine the age of the youngest Aspen across the forest to recruit—to grow above the height that cows and elk can eat their tender tips. Evidence shows that it has been years since Aspen have been able to do so. Mary wants to know how long, and perhaps to correlate the change in ecosystem health with changes in land management practices. In our final few days with Mary, we stayed in the Petrified Forest National Park to run the Leave It to Beaver Festival, which included informational lectures, booths, and games promoting the beaver as a vital species. Although we were repeatedly warned of Mary’s tireless work ethic, we left for Moab energized and inspired. Twenty-two new beaver believers continue their journey across the West.

By Katie Hardy

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Semester in the West

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